The California Citizens Redistricting Commission has put out its first draft of new boundaries for the state’s assembly, senate, and U.S. House districts. The draft has prompted much talk about what the lines will mean for the state’s political future. Which seats will go to which party? Which incumbents will stay and go, and what new political faces might emerge? Such questions are tough to answer. Several layers of uncertainty lie beneath the precise-looking maps and data tables. Would-be prognosticators should proceed with caution.
First, the lines aren’t final. The commission is seeking comments on its work and will hold more hearings in the weeks ahead. It will publish a second draft in July and a final version in August. In a recent television interview, commission member Maria Blanco stressed the complexity of Southern California demographics and said of the plan: “It’s definitely in flux, and I want to underscore the preliminary nature of these drafts.” The commission will face pushback from politicians who see the first draft as a threat to their political futures. Veteran Democratic House members Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, for instance, would end up in the same district in the San Fernando Valley, on the other side of the Hollywood Hills. Neither wants a bloody primary battle against the other. The supporters of threatened politicians will press the commission to draw friendlier lines.
California has never had a redistricting commission before (voters approved the commission idea in 2008, under Proposition 11). So it’s anybody’s guess how the commission might respond to political pressure, which interest groups have begun to apply with vigor. According to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund, the current plan fails to reflect the growth of the state’s Hispanic population. “The maps present a worst-case scenario for the Latino community,” says NALEO Educational Fund Executive Director Arturo Vargas. If the commission neglects such concerns, the plan could arguably fall afoul of the Voting Rights Act, resulting in lengthy lawsuits. It’s tricky to forecast whether or how the legal process would change the district lines, but no significant shift would be simple to implement. Mapmakers must follow strict rules of population equality, so whenever they take voters from District A, they must replace them with voters from District B, and then replace those voters—and so on. If you remember Rubik’s Cube, you get the idea.
Democrats clearly have the upper hand here, but that’s been true for some time. As Sean Trende observed last year, Democrats have maintained an advantage in party registration in California since the 1930s. In recent decades, Democrats have enjoyed almost unbroken control of the state legislature, except for a brief time in the mid-1990s when the GOP held a slight edge in the assembly. Though the state went Republican in all six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988, it has gone Democratic in the five presidential races since 1992. According to Gallup surveys of party affiliation in the state (including identifiers and leaners), Democrats outnumber Republicans by 14 percent. In short, Democrats will probably keep a majority of state legislative and congressional seats for years to come.
But uncertainty surrounds the identity of the occupants. Under the U.S. Constitution, candidates for the House don’t have to reside in the districts in which they run: they need only live in the same state. The California Constitution imposes a one-year residency requirement on legislative candidates, but the state hasn’t bothered to enforce it in more than 30 years. California politicians can run wherever they want, though they usually find it necessary to have some kind of connection with the voters that they court. Hundreds of elected officials and wannabe candidates are thus scanning the landscape, trying to reckon where they should plant their political flags.
After the politicians have chosen where to run, they will grapple with another innovation: the top-two primary. Under Proposition 14, which voters approved in June 2010, all candidates, regardless of party, will appear on the same primary ballot. The top two vote-getters then advance to the November general election. By putting candidates before the whole electorate right from the start, its supporters hope, the top-two system will encourage politicians to develop broad voter coalitions instead of catering to narrow party factions. Will the new system yield a crop of pragmatic problem solvers? Or will interest groups and ideological blocs continue to use money and manpower to keep candidates in line? We should know more next year.
Oh yes, and the entire newfangled enterprise hinges on numbers that will quickly become obsolete. By the time the first elections take place in the new districts next year, the underlying census figures will already be two years old. Births, deaths, and changes of residence will mean that the actual makeup of the population will differ at least modestly from the official numbers. And with every two-year period, the gap between reality and the census will widen. Meanwhile, some voters who stay put geographically may change where they stand politically. So some districts that are safe for one party in 2012 may become competitive by 2016, and vice versa.
In California, you can’t count on anything—even the numbers.